The restless dead
Two men, strangers to the district, recently died in the village of Drakelow. They were itinerant labourers who had hired on to help with the reaping, making their beds in an old cowshed across the fields. It appears they must have argued one evening and each stabbed the other in the heart.
The coroner, Sir Achard, duly arrived and assayed the scene. He confiscated the purses of the two dead men. Local enquiries revealed them to be Gerwin and Lampert. They had spent time on several local manors, usually getting driven on to their next location because of drunkenness or Gerwin’s tendency to flirt with milkmaids. The bodies were buried in a potter’s field attached to the churchyard.
To the annoyance of Sir Percy de Grainville, lord of Drakelow, the coroner levied a fine on him for taking on labourers of unknown provenance. He was even more annoyed a few days later when a farm worker returning from the fields with a cart full of wheat saw Gerwin and Lampert in the orchard. He ran off, abandoning the cart, and when a group of villagers returned to the spot they found the whole contents of the cart spoiled, the grain black and rancid as if it had been soaked in sewage water for weeks.
And so it begins
Now, at this point you may be asking how the player-characters come into this. They could be working in the fields themselves to earn a few coins (the pay is ninepence a week) but it’s likely your players don’t care to trudge around doing menial work. Higher status characters could be guests of Sir Percy, or perhaps they arrive in Sir Achard’s retinue. Another option: they’re sent by the bishop when the first hints of something diabolical start to get bruited about.
Or the player-characters could be wanderers themselves, just passing through, but with the locals already jittery that’s a dangerous position to be in.
Two days after the burial a little boy returns home without his sister, telling a story of how they met a man on the road sitting on a wooden box. He invited the little girl to lie in it, saying that it was a bed he’d been given by the charity of the villagers. ‘Then another man came and they put on the lid and carried her off.’
The sexton notices the soil in the potter’s field has been roughly churned up. ‘I patted those graves down myself.’ Digging at the spot, which is Gerwin’s grave, he finds the body of the missing girl. There is no sign of Gerwin’s corpse or his coffin.
Sir Percy decides there is no need to summon the coroner to investigate the death of a ten-year-old girl, even though the body has been drained of blood.
Further sightings ensue: two figures loping through the fields at sunset; a horrible clamouring and banging in the street at night; plague symbols daubed on the door of the mill house.
The facts in the case
Their purses contained a total of twenty farthings, though they had earned at least two shillings each in the time they’d been working on the manor. ‘Spent the rest in the tavern,’ is the coroner’s opinion.
Apart from the fatal thrusts there were no other knife-wounds on the bodies, but some of the jurors (twelve locals summoned for the purpose) admit to seeing bruises on the arms and necks, as though the dead men had been restrained.
Gerwin had been seen hanging around Lucy, the 16-year-old daughter of Richard the miller. Some villagers think she was sweet on him, others that his attentions were unwelcome. A day or two before Gerwin’s death, he and Richard argued in the lane and each threatened the other. Richard has three strapping sons (Joseph, Barnaby and Abel) who all share their father’s fiery temper and most villagers wouldn’t care to get on the wrong side of the family.
Things get serious
Richard Miller comes down with a fever. He gets weaker and his son Joseph is sent to fetch a physician from the monastery. He takes some money to pay the monks but does not return that night. The next morning he’s found torn limb from limb. His purse is open on the ground beside the body but only some of the money has been taken – a little over two shillings, the sum the characters might expect Gerwin and Lampert to have saved if they make any effort to calculate it.
The coroner is no happier to be called back than Sir Percy is to see him, especially as the circumstances of Joseph Miller’s death don’t admit of any easy explanation.
‘Brigands, perhaps? They tortured him for his money, it seems.’More calamities ensue. The geese are found with their necks wrung. Among the carcasses lies a severed finger, black and mould-spattered. ‘One of the birds must have bitten it off,’ says the sexton, picking up the finger. ‘I’ll bury it after I’ve got the rector to pour some holy water on it.’ But that night the sexton is taken ill.
‘Why not just take it? The purse was in his belt.’
‘For sport, then. They must have tied him to horses. How else could he have been ripped apart like that?’
‘But there were no rope marks. Just hand prints on his limbs.’
‘Absurd. What hands could dismember a strong lad as though he were an over-roasted fowl?’
Others get sick. The miller’s remaining sons are pursued on their way back from the pub and barely get home and bar the door before there is a terrible pounding and roaring outside which goes on all night. Next day they relate the tale: ‘On the roof it was, and we had to use all the firewood to stop it coming down the chimney. Suddenly the noise stopped, just as the cock crowed. Then at sunrise when we went to look in on Daisy – ’
‘Hush, you fool,’ says Barnaby, kicking his shin.
It soon seems clear that ‘Daisy’ is a sheep the Millers have been keeping tethered at the back of the mill. Nobody heard her bleating because of the sound of the river. The carcass been stripped to the bones.
‘Eaten raw,’ remarks the coroner. ‘Perhaps wolves..?’ But he sounds decidedly uncertain now.
Lampert is easy to deal with. He can be dug up in broad daylight. The cloth around his face is soaked in blood and his flesh, though marked with pocks of decay, is ruddy and swollen. The rector sprinkles the body with holy water and directs the villagers to cut off the head and put it face down between the legs.
Gerwin’s grave is already known to be empty, so before he can be dealt with in the same way his new resting place must be found. As a red herring, he’s been seen lingering near Dipcap Wood, a copse on a rolling green hill half a mile from the village. The villagers occasionally gather fallen branches from the outskirts of the copse but never venture in because it is a place of ill repute. The characters could waste a day or two searching the copse for Gerwin’s grave site, which in fact is in the wheat fields much nearer to the village.
Gerwin is able to go about invisible after dark, so the characters need to track him. They can follow his path through the wheat field where he has trampled the stalks flat going to and fro from his new grave, or they must think of some other ploy.
But there is a risk if they leave it too long that Lucy Miller comes down with the sickness, and she is not expected to last the night, so perhaps they can’t afford to wait for the safety of daylight and must go to confront the vampire in darkness.
It’s a tough fight. Gerwin cannot be cut except by weapons that have been forged with magic or else blessed, so all other edged weapons do half damage against him. A mace will be useful only if it shatters a bone (signified by scoring at the upper range of damage), otherwise he shrugs it off.
Holy water? That’s useful only once the monster is down, to stop it rising again. There's no Hollywood acid-in-the-face effect here. Forget too the tigerish snarls and snapping of modern vampires faced with crosses. A holy character might succeed in driving Gerwin back to his grave, just as the sound of cockcrow does, but his departure will merely be accompanied a sough of wind and then he’s gone. If confronted at his graveside, he stands his ground and fights to the bitter end.
Gerwin’s own blows not only land with the force of stout cudgels, they inflict a stinging numbness so that the injured character is at a disadvantage to hit the following round. Meanwhile he is invisible, so characters who are fighting him must be guided by the movement of the wheat stalks, his heavy tread, and the stream of gibbering obscenities he’s uttering. That means a penalty to hit unless the character has a cantrip to see things masked by invisibility or is able to make a sorcery roll, in which case they will know to hold up a stone with a hole through it in order to see him.
The idea of the scenario is to highlight the difference between vampires of the world of Legend (such as Robert Dale's memorably grisly Pyron, here) and the traditional Victorian drawing-room variety. Even the word vampire is used interchangeably with revenant, prodigy, fiend or draugur. If you were to use the term undead it’s unlikely most people in Ellesland would know what you meant, and folk theories abound: the corpse is reanimated by an evil spirit; the man didn’t die but became possessed; the individuals were always hellions yet dormant, needing only death to transform them pupa-like into the demonic thing they are now. Remember that the idea of the resurrection of the flesh is accepted as fact by most people – this is just a hellish parody, perpetrated by the Devil, of the Saviour’s return to life that all God-fearing folk hope to share on the Day of Judgement.
As a guideline, here’s William of Newburgh’s 12th century account of a creature modern readers might be tempted to call one of the undead:
‘A Christian burial, indeed, he received, though unworthy of it; but it did not much benefit him: for issuing, by the handiwork of Satan, from his grave at night time, and pursued by a pack of dogs with horrible barkings, he wandered through the courts and around the houses while all men made fast their doors, and did not dare to go abroad on any errand whatever from the beginning of the night until the sunrise, for fear of meeting and being beaten black and blue by this vagrant monster.
‘Hastening to the cemetery, they began to dig; and whilst they were thinking that they would have to dig to a greater depth, they suddenly, before much of the earth had been removed, laid bare the corpse, swollen to an enormous corpulence, with its countenance beyond measure turgid and suffused with blood; while the napkin in which it had been wrapped appeared nearly torn to pieces. The young men, however, spurred on by wrath, feared not, and inflicted a wound upon the senseless carcass, out of which incontinently flowed such a stream of blood, that it might have been taken for a leech filled with the blood of many persons. Then, dragging it beyond the village, they speedily constructed a funeral pile; and upon one of them saying that the pestilential body would not burn unless its heart were torn out, the other laid open its side by repeated blows of the blunted spade, and, thrusting in his hand, dragged out the accursed heart.’
A thought about how to handle that invisibility. Putting invisible creatures into fantasy games can feel a bit sci-fi, not to say tricksily green-screen, so how about suggesting to your players that there's something so horrific about the vampire that they just can't bring themselves to look straight at him. They know where he is, but their eyes just won't stay in that direction and their minds refuse to take it in. It's like somebody in a dream whom you're aware of but can't quite see. Don't use the i-word. Make it strange.
Oh, and who really killed Gerwin and Lampert? I don't really need to spell it out, do I?